Mar 042007

Rodney Anonymous checks in with his views on the union of humor and music.

Being both a victim (although I prefer to use the term “survivor”) and perpetrator of humor in music, has granted me the insight to develop a two-fold theory about the why certain people feel the need to combine music with comedy. For the sake of the following discussion, these theories shall be referred to below as The Weird Al Yankovic Theory and The Frank Zappa Theory, or, if you like, “Theory Y” and “Theory Z” (Please not that both of these theories pertain to INTENTIONALLY humorous acts as opposed to performers like Sarah McLachlan who, although her lyrics never fail to make me laugh, is not actually trying to be funny.

Here is what the two theories hold in common: Just as cartooning has been described as a compromise between the desire to draw well and the inability to do so (or, possibly, the desire to draw dicks on a men’s room wall), it’s entirely possible that “Humorous” music represents a middle ground between wanting to play and or sing well and the complete failure of most of the population (myself included) to be able to do so.

Theory Y: The Weird Al Yankovic Theory
It’s entirely possible that the majority of “Comedy-Rock” artists are
complete and utter morons.

Just as it takes a T.S. Eliot to write The Waste Land (J. Alfred PrufROCKS!) while just about any moron can pen a dirty limerick, so is it also true that while it takes a Nick Cave to write Brompton Oratory, but any short bus-riding Bush appointee who can play G, C, and possibly D7th on the guitar can churn out a ditty about farts 2. And just as there is a bigger market out there for Beyonce than there is for the aforementioned Mr. Cave (or, if you prefer, more people will tune in to watch American Idol than to see Barbara Ehrenreich on Book TV), that song about farts and the inherent joy of farting will find a large, receptive, hooting audience of fart aficionados.

Theory Z: The Frank Zappa Theory
“Comedy-Rock” artists are actually smarter than their musical brethren.

In a widely criticized and highly misunderstood piece recently written for Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens argued that men are, indeed, much funnier than women (now you know why it was widely criticized). What many readers (and numerous people who claimed to have read the piece but instead spent the afternoon tasting shiny objects) overlooked was Hitchens’ emphasis on the role of evolution in humor.

While the majority of women are still hardwired to mate with the strongest male (the one burley enough to bring down a wooly mammoth), there is an evolutionary predisposition among women to mate with the males who are smart enough to organize a successful wooly mammoth hunt (Let’s see Dick Cheney bring down one of those suckers). One method of demonstrating intelligence is, of course, through wit.

So if you’re a moderately unattractive male (say, Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop) who can sing and gyrate across a stage then the transmission of your genes is pretty much a given. However, if you look like Frank Zappa (while I grew up on Mr. Zappa’s music and consider him a hero, I should state that I now find his body of work to be pretty much unlistenable) and have the vocal range of the Beastie Boys (undisputed geniuses) but still harbor dreams of playing hide the salami with countless young women, you’d better learn how to make a crowd laugh.

Here it is important to note that being the smartest person in a room full of musicians is tantamount to being the guy who can beat up even the toughest corpse: it ain’t that hard to do. In my nearly-a-decade-long career as a professional musician I met countless other musicians who were no smarter than the average houseplant. I would estimate the IQs of The Meat Puppets (whose music I have always loved), for example, to be comparable with that of a paramecium or flatworm.

1. Here are some authentic Sarah McLachlan lyrics for your consideration:

In the arms of an angel
Fly away from here
From this dark cold hotel room
And the endlessness that you fear
You are pulled from the wreckage
Of your silent reverie
You’re in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort there

Bwahahahaah. Is that shit hilarious or what?

2. Tour Story: While traveling the highways and byways of America, the Milkmen were subjected to countless “funny” opening acts, including one whose lead singer proudly proclaimed “We have a song about taking a crap in someone mailbox. Can you believe that?” No. No, we really couldn’t.


  6 Responses to ““Survivor” Rodney Anonymous on Humor and Music”

  1. On point in about every way possible, Rodney.

  2. at 11:30 tonight Rodney, I will be simultaneously funny and musical at the Balcony at the Trocadero. Tell the doorguy you’re a member of and you’ll get in free! Tell me(the guy spitting blood), and I’ll buy you a drink*

    *domestic beer or well booze only.

  3. general slocum

    Rodney, I would only point out that you inadvertantly give points to the non-musician-community’s intelligence, possibly as a result of having spent so much time hanging out in the Musicians’ Tent. Just yesterday, I was telling Kurt Wunder that I really enjoy Car Talk. He said he did, too, but was sometimes made uncomfortable at the forced laughter, pointing out the notion that still laughing while saying, “Don’t drive like my brother!” after all these years must be artificial. I suggested that there isn’t anyone who hasn’t had a jovial old fart say to him at work, “Hey! Got your EARS lowered!! Heh!” Every single time you get your hair cut, they say it as though they’ve never said it before. And the guys who say that believe genuinely in its entertainment value.
    Also, houseplants’ reticence should not be blamed on a lack of intelligence, though lack of humorous sensibility is likely, as is the case with cats, or Prince, or West Philly food co-ops, or what have you. Please don’t write, anyone, to say I malign hippies of this stripe. I know they *can* laugh. Perhaps after crying “Huzzah!” – in that serious, deep way, which is expressive of ethical and superior mirth, as at, say, Gaya’s Bounty. (Don’t you start, either, Art. It’s all true.)
    As with a lot of other properties in music and life, humor in music such as Zappa’s only falls flat to me when it has that tone of superiority and hectoring and also fails to have a graspable sense that he is finding this funny. I do get the sense that, for example, the Car Talk guys genuinely find humor in thinking these things up, and also really hope the person hearing them will share in the humor. As opposed to the anti-humorists as exemplified by Howard Stern, who hopes only that you will feel inferior enough to keep listening, and doesn’t concern himself with rewarding you for it. Weird Al seems to have some spark of finding these things funny, and they might be, if you murmmur the catch phrase over you beer along with the song on the juke box once. But then he has to go and overwork the idea so that every last citizen in the land can fully grasp how brilliant he is.
    Along this continuum, I would still say Zappa was capable of doing genuinely funny things inside of genuinely good music, though that is the smaller part of his material by far. He did occaisionally reach that level, but the bitter resentful tone of “Plastic People” and the aforementioned “doo wop” mockery is much more the rule. Where Zappa also broke new ground, was in the between-song banter at which he was quite good. He raised the bar for that well above the meager reach of today’s typical bar band, even at their best Hang In There Baby, Friday’s Coming stretch.

  4. Mr. Moderator

    As with a lot of other properties in music and life, humor in music such as Zappa’s only falls flat to me when it has that tone of superiority and hectoring and also fails to have a graspable sense that he is finding this funny.

    This is an interesting point – the value of the humorist being amused by his or her humor. Perhaps, then, I can blame the absolute lack of humor that I find in, say, the “humor” of Adam Sandler or Louden Wainwright III on the artist’s lack of empathy for his own material.

    Are any of you into Louden Wainwright III? A-Dogg and I had a teacher/advisor/friend who swore by him. Wainwright always makes me sick in the stomach. His “humor” seems more bound by self-hatred than even an admirer and practitioner of self-hatred like myself can handle. I don’t get the sense he gets any joy out of his self-hatred.

  5. trolleyvox

    The Wishniaks once played on a bill with a band called the Asparaguys. One of their members gave me their tape, which he was obviously very proud of, and it featured a photo of a band member sitting on the toilet with his pants down, holding a beer, smiling at the camera. I was told “See? He’s sitting on the toilet! It’s funny, you know? Just like the Dead Milkmen”. I believe it was at that point that the universe imploded into a massive irony hole.

  6. Oh fucking hell The Asparaguys. A band I was in was on a bill with those assholes. The Dead Milkmen might’ve been the headliners, I dunno; I know we opened for them at least once.

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